Phil’s (Not So) Quick Capsule Review: Empire Records was a massive bomb on it’s original release. Critically and commercially. Roger Ebert hated it (that said he hated The Usual Suspects…), Variety labelled it as “Soundtrack in search for a movie” and it grossed under £300k on it’s theatrical release. Yet as the years go on so the cult around Empire Records continues to grow and grow. From regular midnight screenings to the annual Rex Manning Day celebrations (8th April) more and more people have come around to the fact that Empire Records is, actually, pretty damn good.
The story, as such, is about an independent record store on the brink of a take over by a nasty big multi national chain called Music Town stuck with a eclectic team of broken teens and an ego manic musician reluctantly there to plug his new album. In reality it’s coming of age story that kind of ends up being a 90’s Breakfast Club set in a Record Store rather than a detention. But, like many a cult hit, this film is less about the story and more about the feels & the characters. And that is something this film has in spades.
Backtrack. I discovered Empire Records in a video shop in my home town of Lewes (Lewes Videos take a much deserved bow) thanks mostly to it’s excellent owner who had an ability to find little heard of classics and fill his shelves with them. From 80’s actioners Action Jackson, Never To Young To Die and my love of Jackie Chan – without that shop I’d probably not be writing this review here. See before the internet, before Facebook and Instagram a cult hit became a cult hit often from a knowledgeable video clerk pointing you in the direction of something a little special. Yes the Tarantino stories of video shop life weren’t all exaggerations! Sadly those days have now passed but I do wonder if this film came out now and had similar reception if it’s fandom would grow as much as it has or would it’s 30 score on Metacritic or sub 30% on Rotten Tomatoes consign it to some little seen Sky Movies channel at 4am in the morning?
It was a film that initially felt ahead of it times whilst being a launch pad for the careers of at least 3 big stars (Zellweger, Tyler and Tunney). And this is the key Empire Records continued success. The cast are brilliant. Be it Liv Tyler’s innocent but broken Harvard student Corey or Rene Zellweger’s s–ty Gina, Maxwell Caulfield egotist singer Rex Manning or Anthony LaPaglia heart of gold store manager Joe… Empire’s characters resonate hard. For sure it’s not the best acted or directed film of the 90’s. But it’s cast gave it heart and soul, making it relatable.
Oh and the soundtrack. I’ve seen empire Records well over twenty times. But the soundtrack I’ve listened to hundreds. And much like the films cast it’s full of oddballs, strangeness, 2nd tier hits and one hit wonders it’s soundtrack delivers an eclectic mix from Coyote Shivers to Edwin Collins. Look beyond the official soundtrack album to Spotify playlists that have been created with music that didn’t make it to the CD and you’ll find even more quirky tracks covering Gwar, Dire Straights and many more.
I have to admit part of the original appeal for me was Liv Tyler. Empire was Tyler’s third film (after the very good Heavy and the little seen Silent Fall) but I’m pretty sure I caught it after seeing her in Stealing beauty (a wonderful film in itself). I had a major crush so anything with Tyler in was a draw for me. She still remains a very underrated actress, with film appearances fleeting after the early successes.
No commentary for this film could pass without reference to the wonderful creation that is Rex Manning. Part Hoff part every one hit wonder clinging to his heyday singer that’s ever been, former teen star Maxwell Caulfield who himself has something of a high and low filled career (see the critically hated Grease 2) delivers a note perfect slimeball performance backed up by the so bad it’s brilliant ‘Say No More Mon Amour’ track.
Don’t get me wrong the film has flaws. It’s random to the point of being totally undisciplined, certain characters (Mark) seem like they are in a different film and it’s no surprise that few of the male cast broke big down the line. BUT no work of art, no movie is perfect and it’s flaws just make it that bit more real.
Even thought Empire Records flopped on it’s release, in the 20 plus years that have followed it’s cult has grown enough for it to get some much needed love back from the rights holders. A ‘Fan Edit’ a few years back was released (I’m not a massive fan as it kills the pacing and makes certain sections drag longer than they should) and a US Region A BluRay Release. Outside the official stuff, there’s Etsy shops galore with pins, name badges and posters and Rex Manning Day has become a thing. No really.
Empire Records was of it’s time. And like many films I hold dear from my formative years, it’s one that stuck with me. I’ve never shown it to anyone that didn’t love it. I embrace it’s flaws. I love it’s quirkiness and like Warren I too deep down just wanted Joe to give me a job.
Damn the man, Save The Empire!
Author: Phil Hobden